By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London, on 21 December 1118. It was the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle. 900 years later, he is remembered on 29 December, the anniversary of his martyrdom. True to the Gospel used in today’s Christmas liturgy, Thomas Becket’s memory is truly a sign of contradiction, like that of the Lord to whom he chose to remain faithful.
Thomas Becket was born to Norman merchants. His early education was minimal. He began to work as a clerk and secured a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas would later study in Paris and eventually studied Canon Law in Bologna. He then proved his capabilities through several ecclesiastical offices entrusted to him by Theobald, who then recommended him to King Henry II for the vacant position of Chancellor of England. Not only did Thomas serve his king faithfully, he also became great friends with the king.
On Theobald’s death, Henry II named Becket as his successor as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Not yet a priest, Becket was ordained on June 2 and consecrated bishop the following day. What King Henry did not expect was the transformation that now Archbishop Becket was going through. Not long after becoming Archbishop, Thomas resigned as Chancellor due to tensions that had begun to arise between him and the king. Those tensions would lead to Becket’s 6-year exile in France after he was convicted on trumped up charges for refusing to sign a document that would undermine the Church’s freedom in England.
When Thomas Becket returned to England in 1170 and began to excommunicate bishops faithful to the king. In December, Henry uttered the famous words:
"What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"
Four knights interpreted these words as an order that Becket be put to death and murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.
Pope Alexander II canonized Thomas three years later and his shrine became a popular medieval pilgrimage destination. Later under the English Reformation, British Catholics in exile on the mainland found a perfect patron in Thomas. In the 19th century, he would be formally declared Patron of the English pastoral clergy. His memory and devotion have been kept alive at the Venerable English College in Rome which reopened its doors on his Feast Day in 1818 after the French occupation of Rome. The Venerable English College in Rome commemorated the 900th anniversary of St Thomas’ birth in April of this year, with a symposium and exhibition. One of the items in the exhibition is what is perhaps the only surviving piece of the hair shirt Thomas Becket was wearing when he was martyred.